Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature
|Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature|
|Presented by||Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences|
|Currently held by||Laura Poitras
Winners and nominees
Following the Academy's practice, films are listed below by the award year (that is, the year they were released under the Academy's rules for eligibility). In practice, due to the limited nature of documentary distribution, a film may be released in different years in different venues, sometimes years after production is complete.
In 1942, there was one Documentary category, twenty-five nominees and four winners.
- Africa, Prelude to Victory
- Combat Report
- Conquer by the Clock
- The Grain That Built a Hemisphere
- Henry Browne, Farmer
- High Over the Borders
- High Stakes in the East
- Inside Fighting China
- It's Everybody's War
- Listen to Britain
- Little Belgium
- Little Isles of Freedom
- Mr. Blabbermouth!
- Mister Gardenia Jones
- The New Spirit
- The Price of Victory
- A Ship Is Born
- Twenty-One Miles
- We Refuse to Die
- The White Eagle
- Winning Your Wings
From 1943 there were two separate documentary categories (features and short films)
- 1943 - Desert Victory
- 1944 - The Fighting Lady
- 1945 - The True Glory
- 1946 - none given
- 1947 - Design for Death
- 1948 - The Secret Land
- 1949 - Daybreak in Udi
- 1950 - The Titan: Story of Michelangelo
- 1951 - Kon-Tiki
- 1952 - The Sea Around Us
- 1953 - The Living Desert
- 1954 - The Vanishing Prairie
- 1955 - Helen Keller in Her Story (also known as The Unconquered)
- 1956 - The Silent World
- 1957 - Albert Schweitzer
- 1958 - White Wilderness
- 1959 - Serengeti Shall Not Die
- 1963 - Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World
- Note: Originally Terminus was announced as one of the nominees, but it was subsequently discovered that the film was first released prior to the eligibility period, and thus the nomination was withdrawn.
- 1964 - World Without Sun
- 1965 - The Eleanor Roosevelt Story
- 1966 - The War Game
- 1967 - The Anderson Platoon
- 1968 - Journey into Self
- Note: At the 41st Awards ceremony on April 14, 1969, Young Americans was announced as the winner of the Documentary Feature Oscar. On May 7, 1969, it was revealed that the film had played in October 1967, which rendered it ineligible for a 1968 Award. The first runner-up, Journey Into Self, was awarded the statuette on May 8, 1969.
- 1969 - Arthur Rubinstein – The Love of Life
While accepting the Best Supporting Actress award in 1978, Vanessa Redgrave made a scornful reference to the Jewish Defense League, which was picketing the event in protest of Redgrave's involvement in the documentary The Palestinian, which advocated for a Palestinian state. She was both cheered and booed when she praised the Academy for ignoring "the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world."
Many critically acclaimed documentaries were never nominated. Examples include Shoah, The Thin Blue Line, Roger & Me, Touching The Void, Hoop Dreams, Crumb, Paris is Burning, Grizzly Man, The Interrupters, The Last Waltz, Crime After Crime, Blackfish, Waiting for "Superman", Senna, Life Itself and Fahrenheit 9/11 (see below).
Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, at the time the highest-grossing documentary film in movie history, was ruled ineligible because Moore had opted to have it played on television prior to the 2004 election. Previously, the 1982 winner Just Another Missing Kid had already been broadcast in Canada and won that country's ACTRA award for excellence in television at the time of its nomination.
The controversy over Hoop Dreams' exclusion was enough to have the Academy Awards begin the process to change its documentary voting system. Roger Ebert, who had declared it to be the best 1994 movie of any kind, looked into its failure to receive a nomination: "We learned, through very reliable sources, that the members of the committee had a system. They carried little flashlights. When one gave up on a film, he waved a light on the screen. When a majority of flashlights had voted, the film was switched off. "Hoop Dreams" was stopped after 15 minutes."
The Academy's executive director, Bruce Davis, took the unprecedented step of asking accounting firm Price Waterhouse to turn over the complete results of that year's voting, in which members of the committee had rated each of the 63 eligible documentaries on a scale of six to ten. "What I found," said Davis, "is that a small group of members gave zeros (actually low scores) to every single film except the five they wanted to see nominated. And they gave tens to those five, which completely skewed the voting. There was one film that received more scores of ten than any other, but it wasn't nominated. It also got zeros (low scores) from those few voters, and that was enough to push it to sixth place."
In 2000, Arthur Cohn, the producer of the winning One Day in September boasted, "I won this without showing it in a single theater!" Cohn had hit upon the tactic of showing his Oscar entries at invitation-only screenings, and to as few other people as possible. Oscar bylaws at the time required voters to have seen all five nominated documentaries; by limiting his audience, Cohn shrank the voting pool and improved his odds. Following protests by many documentarians, the nominating system was subsequently changed.
Hoop Dreams director Steve James said "With so few people looking at any given film, it only takes one to dislike a film and its chances for making the short list are diminished greatly. So they’ve got to do something, I think, to make the process more sane for deciding the shortlist." Among other rule changes taking effect in 2013, the Academy began requiring a documentary to have been reviewed by either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times, and be commercially released for at least one week in both of those cities. Advocating for the rule change, Michael Moore said, "When people get the award for best documentary and they go on stage and thank the Academy, it's not really the Academy, is it? It's 5% of the Academy."
The awards process has also been criticized for emphasizing a documentary's subject matter over its style or quality. In 2009, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman wrote about the documentary branch members' penchant for choosing "movies that the selection committee deemed good because they’re good for you... a kind of self-defeating aesthetic of granola documentary correctness."
Although documentaries are eligible for the Academy Award for Best Picture, none has yet earned a nomination. Documentaries are also ineligible for the other awards such as; Best Original Screenplay and Best Director due to their realistic elements.
- "Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert: Hoop Dreams: from short subject to major league"; current.org; July 30, 1995.
- Pond, Steve, The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards, pg. 74, Faber and Faber, 2005